On Saturday, the Library of Congress opened the new exhibition, “World War I: American Artists View the Great War,” highlighting how American artists galvanized public interest in World War I.
Drawn from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Collections, the works on display reflect the focus of wartime art on patriotic and propaganda messages—by government-supported as well as independent and commercial artists.
Many of the artists featured in the exhibition worked for the federal government’s Division of Pictorial Publicity, a unit of the Committee on Public Information. Led by Charles Dana Gibson, a preeminent illustrator, the division focused on promoting recruitment, bond drives, home-front service, troop support and camp libraries. Many images advocated for American involvement in the war and others encouraged hatred of the German enemy. In less than two years, the division’s 300 artists produced more than 1,400 designs, including some 700 posters.
Heeding the call from Gibson to “Draw ‘til it hurts,” hundreds of leading American artists created works about the Great War (1914–1918). Although the United States participated as a direct combatant in World War I from 1917 to 1918, the riveting posters, cartoons, fine art prints and drawings on display chronicle this massive international conflict from its onset through its aftermath.
Among those who heeded the call were James Montgomery Flagg (best known for his portrayal of Uncle Sam), Wladyslaw Benda, George Bellows, Joseph Pennell and William Allen Rogers. In contrast, such artists as Maurice Becker, Kerr Eby and Samuel J. Woolf drew on their personal experiences to depict military scenes on the front lines as well as the traumatic treatment of conscientious objectors. Finally, cartoonists offered both scathing criticism and gentle humor, as shown in Bud Fisher’s comic strip “Mutt and Jeff.”
Photography also provided essential communication during the First World War. The selected images detail the service of soldiers, nurses, journalists and factory workers from the home front to the trenches. American Red Cross photographs by Lewis Hine and others employ artful documentation to capture the challenges of recovery and rebuilding in Europe after the devastation of war.
The exhibition is made possible by the Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon, and is the first in a series of events the Library is planning in connection with the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War, including exhibits, symposia and book talks.